Welcome back to a special Christmas Eve edition of Going Bowling, where we're pretty sure that Friday night Santa will be violating any and all texting while driving laws as he steers the sleigh with one hand and checks for Sheraton Hawaii Bowl scores on his iPhone.
Ho Ho Ho ... to DC we go!
The Military Bowl Takes A Trip To The Fridge
December 29 will mark the third edition of the USO Military Bowl presented by Northrup Grumman (2:30 ET, ESPN), played at Washington's RFK Stadium. The Artist Formerly Known as the Eagle Bank Bowl is now being referred to by a new, albeit unofficial title -- the Ralph Friedgen Farewell Bowl.
Earlier this year I wrote about bowl games benefitting from off-field headlines, specifically how the Independence Bowl received mountains of unexpected media pops because of the preseason fiasco involving Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green and his I-Bowl jersey. Throughout the season, multiple bowl execs have talked to me about the media coverage and ticket sales coups that can come from breaking news, particularly coaching changes.
While no one will be able to match the coaching carousel drama that will accompany Florida's trip to the Outback Bowl, the Military Bowl is suddenly running a close second. It was already a very big deal for the still-new game to land the Maryland Terrapins. The College Park, MD campus sits only 10 miles north of RFK Stadium. But Monday's news that Friedgen had been fired took the game's home field advantages to an entirely different level. If the announcement of Maryland's new coach comes between now and next week's kickoff, especially if that coach ends up being Mike Leach, the increase in visibility for the Military Bowl won't just move the needle, it will break it.
During his first pregame press conference on Wednesday afternoon, Friedgen nearly broke down twice, admitting that he was exhausted and emotionally drained.
"There's no doubt that we now have a lot of emotion involved with our game," admits Military Bowl executive director Steve Beck, a DC area native and husband of a Maryland alum. "There was already a lot of excitement surrounding Maryland's participation. It had instantly brought us to the attention of people in this area who I honestly don't think even realized that we hosted this game. Now, because of the situation with Ralph, we have been thrust into the local and national spotlight all at the same time."
When the Military Bowl was founded (then the Congressional Bowl), it immediately inked tie-ins with the ACC and Conference-USA. As is customary with any conference affiliation, the bowl staff immediately started running through potential matchup scenarios. Some looked very good. Other looked sketchy at best. At the top of their wish list was the home team, Maryland, versus East Carolina, long regarded by bowl executives as one of the best non-AQ schools when it comes to travelling fans.
This year, after so-so pairings in its first two games (Wake Forest-Navy in '08, UCLA-Temple in '09), they finally got what Beck calls "a dream scenario".
ECU has not disappointed. "The Purple Nation is moving north," Beck says with a smile. Nearly as soon as the bid was announced, the team hotel was sold out. By Wednesday afternoon the Pirates had sold out their allotment of 10,000-tickets. As for Maryland, they sold the last of their 10,000 on Tuesday morning, less than 24 hours after Friedgen was fired. In addition, the polarizing charge of emotion surrounding the dismissal has seemed to have spurred ticket sales among local residents, as well as donations to the bowl website, where fans can purchase tickets to be distributed to active military personnel and their families.
The great irony in all of this is that the main reason 8-4 Maryland is even in the Military Bowl is because of their reputation, fair or unfair, as a school that doesn't move bowl tickets.
"I couldn't believe it when they fell to us," Beck said as he talked about the Dec. 5 ACC bowl selection process. "There was never any doubt as to who we were picking. East Carolina had already accepted our invitation and I had my fingers crossed hoping that we'd see Maryland come up as an option. And now we're looking at a potentially huge record crowd."
The Terps were passed over by no less than five ACC bowls, most pointing to the school's struggle to sell out its home games at Byrd Stadium, in particular a nationally-televised November 27 showdown with NC State that had a potential division title on the line. Those difficulties at the box office are also widely considered to be one of the biggest reasons that the coach lost his job after ten seasons.
"We're not disappointed with being in the Military Bowl because they picked us," Friedgen said at a pre-game press conference on December 7, well before he knew that he would be fired. "A lot of people didn't pick us. That's the people we've got issues with ... Our fans have traditionally traveled to bowl games, especially on the East Coast. We sold the Orange Bowl out my first year. We sold the Gator Bowl out. We filled our allotment to the Peach Bowl. We filled our allotment to the Champs Sports Bowl. This year, (home) attendance wasn't what it's been, but it was still a lot higher than what it was my first year."
If this reads like he was agitated, it's because he was.
"I think we've got a chance to send a message to these people that turned us down that we do support bowl games. This is right in our backyard. And East Carolina is going to show up. If we really care about our football program, our fans need to show up also and again make this bowl game really what we all want it to be."
Friedgen will be allowed to coach this game as a farewell and has elected to approach it the same way that he handled his previous six out-of-town bowl trips. The Terps moved into the team hotel on Wednesday, a full week before the game. They will bus to all of the pregame festivities and will practice as if they were in from out of town, not at home.
And the Terrapin supporters, perhaps feeling a little guilty about not supporting Friedgen when he needed them earlier in the season, are following.
"Ralph deserves the right kind of send off," says Beck. "I think that Maryland fans, even those who expressed some disappointment initially about being in our game, realize that there is no better atmosphere than the Military Bowl to ensure that happens."